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Afghans greet Marja offensive with anger, hope

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 18, 2010; A10

KABUL -- Now that Abdul Ahad has lost his mother and father, two brothers, two sisters and four other relatives -- all killed, he said, by a U.S. rocket -- the young farmer is quietly seething over the U.S. and Afghan military offensive in Helmand province.

"The Marja operation will bring us nothing," Ahad said from a hospital in southern Afghanistan. "And now I am alone."

For another Marja resident, the tribal elder Haji Khalifa Mohammad Shah, the outlook could not be more different. He nurtures hopes that his town will be wrested from the Taliban.

"Fighting is not handing out cookies, it's gunfire and rockets, and there will be casualties," he said. "But we are happy about this operation, and it will secure our area."

The largest joint military operation of the war -- involving about 15,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan troops -- has elicited a broad range of reactions from local Afghans, who are less concerned about daily updates of intersections secured than about whether life might look different when the fighting is done. There is anger and skepticism, but also guarded hope.

"The people of Helmand, the majority of them, welcome these kinds of operations, but what they are worried about is the local government after this operation is over. Who will be the local authority? How will they treat the people?" said Haji Mohammad Anwar Isakzai, a member of parliament from Helmand province.

The offensive has driven more than 1,200 families from their homes to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and fewer than half of them have received any type of government aid, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Some have taken refuge in an evacuated school while others have moved in with relatives, or taken shelter in tents despite the bitter cold.

As fighting continues in and around Marja, residents said many people are afraid to venture far from their homes because the ground is seeded with explosives and the Taliban have warned people to stay inside. Afghan military commanders said Wednesday that insurgents were firing from homes, using civilians as human shields.

"The Taliban have banned people from leaving their houses," said Shah Wali Khan, a tribal elder. Residents say, " 'We want this operation to be finished as soon as possible. We are in trouble. We don't have enough food. We need help,' " he added.

The fighting has killed at least 15 civilians, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. Many consider the number of civilian casualties -- a concern that President Hamid Karzai has raised repeatedly-- as relatively low, given the scope of the offensive.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the U.S. military's decision to publicize the operation beforehand, giving residents enough time to leave, has helped minimize the civilian toll. He also credited the move to reduce the reliance on airpower, which was done to protect noncombatants.

"So far, the promises that were made by both Afghan forces and international troops have been respected and observed in terms of the protection of civilians," Nadery said. "The prime objective of this entire operation . . . is, and should be, helping the population in those areas who are suffering, from lack of a government, oppression of the Taliban."

The senior U.S. civilian representative in southern Afghanistan, Frank Ruggiero, said Wednesday that the new governor of Marja, Haji Zahir, will be taken to an abandoned government building in the "next couple days" to begin his duties.

A team of four U.S. civilians -- who are among about 100 foreign civilians working in Helmand -- will accompany him to try to set up development projects, including road construction and cash-for-work farming programs. The United States will finance much of the work.

"They're trying to make it safe enough. That district center was mined. The Taliban IED'd it," Ruggiero told reporters in Kabul, referring to the use of improvised explosive devices. "They're going in there and pulling those IEDs out of the wall."

Marja resident Mullah Tor Padkai, who was displaced to Lashkar Gah a few days ago, remains optimistic that the operation will yield a better life. "We hope they'll get rid of the oppressors in the district," he said. "Even though we lost civilians, we are happy that we will have the freedom."

Outside Helmand, many Afghans voiced greater skepticism that the operation would alter the course of the war. They doubted the wisdom of deploying large numbers of troops into far-flung villages in southern Afghanistan, and they said such a relentlessly publicized operation amounted to military propaganda.

"Let's say there were 100 Taliban in Marja, or even 200 Taliban. They're just the local people," said Bismillah Afghanmal, a politician from Kandahar province. "They just hide their Kalashnikovs in their home, and, instead of a Kalashnikov, they put a shovel on their shoulder and say they're a farmer. What will you accomplish?"

He added: "This is just about the Americans and the British trying to show something to get the support from their own people. They are throwing soil in the eyes of their own people. But not in our eyes. We can see the reality."

Special correspondents Javed Hamdard in Kabul and Safatullah Zahidi in Lashkar Gah contributed to this report.

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